The Shelling of Scarborough, Hartlepool, West Hartlepool, and Whitby on 16 December 1914


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Image 1: British propaganda poster: “Men of Britain! Will You Stand This?” referring to civilian casualties and destruction caused by the German Raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby on 16 December 1914 – Wikimedia Commons.

In December 1914 an Oldham traveller, Mr W.T. Hirst (employed by Hirst Bros., wholesale jewellers), was staying at the Broadway Hotel in Scarborough. He had just got up at 8am when he heard the sound of firing:

Knowing that all windows had to be opened when any firing commenced I got on a chair and was in the act of opening the window when a second flash occurred and the roof of the house opposite the hotel was taken off. I went downstairs and did my best to console the proprietor and his family. With another traveller I went to the front door to see what was going on. A shell burst on a house further up the street and the concussion from it knocked me and the other traveller against each other and we both fell in the hall, being stunned for a few minutes. Everywhere people seemed to be in a panic and things were in great disorder. In Victoria Road all the houses were either hit or shaken and there was not a single window intact. I picked up several pieces of shell. It is a terrible business.


Scarborough had just been shelled for an hour and a half by two German battleships, the Derfflinger and Von der Tann.  Meanwhile, three other German battleships, the Seydlitz, Blücher and Moltke, had opened their attack on Hartlepool at 8.10am. Mrs Jane Whitehead from Delph was living at the Alma Hotel, Whitby Road, Hartlepool with her husband, Lees, and her family:

I sent my daughter, Phyllis, to school and started on my housework and thought I heard the gunners practising at the fort. Thinking that it was much louder than normal I went out into the street and saw the commotion. The postman told me about the bombardment and that the gasworks were already on fire. Whilst I was talking a shell burst right over my head sending splinters in all directions. A poor woman was struck on the breast and killed instantaneously. Children in neighbouring streets were blown to pieces and there was heartbreaking carnage all around. My first thoughts were for my daughter’s safety and I was very relieved when she came home unhurt. A shell had carried off the roof of the school but fortunately had not injured any of the children. Newspapers are usually accused of exaggeration but I know that the worst that has occurred has never been published.


At 8:50am the German ships departed. An Oldham man working in Hartlepool witnessed the bombardment:

 The alarm came about eight o’clock with the sounds of sharp firing, which gradually became fuller and more alarming. Shells burst in all parts of the town, and we could hear them whizzing overhead. About 8.30 the gasworks were ablaze, and flames shot up yards high. The railway station at the back here was damaged, a huge hole being made in the brickwork and carriages battered. A woman was killed by a shell within 20 yards of us and the house shattered, while one of my friends lost his daughter, killed before his eyes by a shell bursting in the room. Parts of shells were flying about in all directions and were picked up just outside this place. The people from the houses on the sea front came hurrying along the streets and before long wounded men, some almost dying, were carried along on stretchers. The old town of Hartlepool presents a sad spectacle, as some of the houses are practically demolished, and the promenade has been battered. Whole rows of houses have their windows blown out, several ships in the harbour were damaged (including a German prize) and shipyards set on fire. The losses are variously estimated, and the wounded are numerous, while some accounts are very harrowing. The gunners at the battery acted splendidly and kept up an almost incessant fire for half an hour, driving the enemy off, although they came very close during one part of the bombardment. I am deeply thankful I am alive to write you a brief impression – by candlelight. If this does not stimulate recruitment, nothing will. It makes one able to picture – though very faintly – the dire distress of our poor Belgian comrades. The people are somewhat excited to-night, but we hope the danger has passed, both here and on the Yorkshire coast.


Mr. J. J. Buckley, proprietor of the Alexandra Hotel, Redcar, and formerly of Delph, visited Hartlepool after the bombardment:

 I along with two friends visited the Hartlepools yesterday, and we were particularly lucky in having Mr. J. Bingley for a guide, as he appears to know all the ins and outs of the town. We saw most of the damage to property, which cannot be realised until seen; roofs, ends, fronts, backs of houses and churches blown away. On the sea wall huge pieces of flags, concrete and earth were torn away. This is near the semaphore station and evidently directed there to destroy the apparatus, but luckily missed it. The lighthouse has also been another target which also fortunately was not damaged, but very near to it is a big gun, and it was here that five soldiers were killed. (One has since died of wounds). The gun, however, was not damaged although a shell exploded so near. I was told William Bradbury (late gravestone letterer at Saddleworth Church) stood on the green, which stretches along the northern front between the town and the shore and watched the whole of the bombardment. If this is true he will have something to relate to his Saddleworth friends. There is any amount of fragments of shells in both towns and Bingley has got many good specimens. He kindly gave me two pieces. As souvenirs they are much sought after and fancy prices are being paid. We afterwards met by appointment Mr Fryer, the Mayor of West Hartlepool, who amongst the many places we visited, took us to the workhouse. This is quite a small house and has been converted into a hospital. We visited two large wards which were more than half filled with civilian wounded men and children. They had nearly all different types of wounds, some head, some back, shoulders, arms legs etc. One boy, probably eight or nine years old, had just had a fractured leg amputated and he did not know about it. Some others were not expected to live long. Mr Usher, the master, then took us to the church where a shell had come through the roof and done considerable damage. This happened five or ten minutes after service and all had cleared out. We next inspected huge fragments of the shell, which are very ugly things. I cannot express the feelings of joy in this town at being so fortunate in not getting a shot, although the German ships sailed past us on the way to Hartlepool and probably not more than two or three miles from us. Apart from the loss of life and property I would not have missed the sight for anything. We could see the fire from the muzzle of the guns at every shot. When salvoes were fired it was a magnificent sight; when broadsides were fired it was easy to tell as the whole of the town trembled, and the surprise is that no windows were broken with the concussion which from the guns was terrible.


The attack on 16 December 1914, during which the German Navy shelled the seaport towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool, West Hartlepool, and Whitby, left one hundred and thirty-seven people dead and 592 injured.

What was the purpose of the German attack? One possibility is that the German Navy was seeking to lure out small parts of the British Navy in order to destroy it bit-by-bit. Another is that the real target for the Germans was the radio stations used by the British Navy, of which there were three in Scarborough.

Whatever the reason, the German shelling of Scarborough, Hartlepool, West Hartlepool, and Whitby had a pronounced effect on British public opinion and was used to underpin a major recruiting campaign under the slogan ‘Remember Scarborough!’


Thanks to Sandra Ratcliffe from Oldham Local Studies and Archives for this great blog post.  



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Image 1: British Propaganda Poster, 1915 – Wikimedia Commons (,_North_Yorkshire_-_WWI_poster.jpg?uselang=en-gb)